This year’s November elections—a preview to next year’s nationwide showdowns—cast their own spotlight on education, a dynamic that played out most prominently in the Kentucky governor’s race, where teachers organized to unseat a combative incumbent who’d sparred with them over issues like charter schools and the future of the state’s pension plan.
As of late last week, Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, led Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in a tight race the Associated Press was still deeming too close to call and which Bevin was refusing to concede. Beshear, the son of Bevin’s predecessor, had former educator Jacqueline Coleman as a running mate and capitalized on public concern for teachers.
Education also resonated in other state and local elections across the country Nov. 5. Mississippi voters elected Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who supports expanding private school choice through education savings accounts. Virginia voters handed control of their state legislature to Democrats, who’d identified school funding as a top priority.
And in Denver, a district known for choice-based reform, voters elected a slate of union-backed school board candidates who oppose such efforts.
Still to Come
Off-year elections are often viewed as bellwethers for the larger numbers of races in presidential election years. In addition to the 2020 race for the White House, voters in 11 states will elect governors next year.
After outbreaks of teacher activism around the country in recent years, educators watched this year’s Kentucky race in particular to see if their past demonstrations around issues like pay and student supports would have lasting effects at the ballot box. Educators are also looking to flex their political muscle at the national level as teachers’ unions consider which Democratic presidential candidates will win their coveted endorsements.
In Kentucky, teachers called in sick en masse in 2018 and again this year to protest proposed changes to the state’s public-employee pension system, which had been cited by Standard & Poor’s as the worst-funded in the nation. Kentucky educators are not eligible for Social Security, and many were concerned that the state wouldn’t honor its obligations. The Republican-controlled legislature failed to pass bills that would have cut cost-of-living adjustments to help stem the crisis.
Beshear successfully sued after Bevin signed a pension-reform bill that legislators had tacked onto an unrelated measure shortly before it passed. Beshear has proposed backfilling the pension system through funds generated by taxes on gambling and through legalizing marijuana.
Though Bevin had not conceded on election night, Beshear gave a victory speech in which he credited teachers.
“To our educators, your courage to stand up and fight against all of the bullying and name calling helped galvanize our entire state,” Beshear said. “This is your victory. From now on, the doors of your state capitol will always be open. We will treat each other with dignity and respect, and we will honor our commitments to our public servants.”
Bevin made pointed comments about the teachers during the sickouts, saying they’d be to blame if students were hurt while they were out of school. He ran on the state’s economy and ties to President Donald Trump, seeking to frame the race around national politics and social issues. Trump himself visited the Bluegrass State for a rally the night before the election to champion Bevin.
But, while Kentucky has trended red—including in contests other than the governor’s race last week—voters have a history of cutting across traditional political lines.
An organization called 120 Strong, a group of teachers that mobilized in every county in the Bluegrass State, worked to organize neighbors and plant yard signs, gathering around the motto “anyone but Bevin.”
“Tonight belongs to the working people who stepped away from the sidelines and into the political arena to take back the KY Governor seat from a failed leader,” 120 Strong co-founder Nema Brewer tweeted as the results came in.
In Mississippi, where teachers have also demonstrated over education issues, Reeves defeated Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in a race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. On education, the two offered differing visions for developing, attracting, and retaining teachers.
Mississippi lawmakers proposed teachers’ raises up to $4,000 last year before eventually approving a $1,500 increase, the Clarion Ledger reported.
Reeves’ education plan called for gradually raising Mississippi teachers’ salaries by about $4,200 over four years to meet the regional average. He also called for bonuses for teachers in high-needs areas. Hood’s plan called for more immediate, broader changes, including an additional $3,000 in teacher raises.
The two also differed on school choice.
Reeves supported a proposal to add allocate $2 million in state funding for education savings accounts, which allow families to send their children to private schools, and he said in interviews that he supports charter schools.
“I believe strongly in giving parents an option about what’s best for their kid,” Reeves told Mississippi Today in 2018. “I think parents have a better idea of what is best for their kid, than any government entity ever will.”
Hood told Mississippi reporters he would not support school choice, but said he was willing to listen to supporters of those policies.
Up next, Louisiana voters head to the polls Nov. 16 for a runoff in their governor’s race, pitting Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards against challenger Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman. Edwards has criticized state education chief John White and his approach to school improvement and accountability.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Education Issues Resonate in Governors’ Races